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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 25/11/01
A trip to the dentist
By Matt Rowson

It's interesting how location in time can alter one's perspective.

If Tsega rings me at work and asks what kind of day I'm having, I might say things are pretty much okay. Or if she rings five minutes later - after I've had the other phone call from the client chasing the overdue piece of work that I've been consciously avoiding - I might be having a bloody awful day.

How much are you bothered by a trip to the dentist? Invariably that depends upon whether you've got an appointment next week or not. Can I afford to go to the pub tonight? I don't know, when did I get paid? Is twenty-eight old? Not any more...

As for games against Portsmouth, surely there are few things that are as constant. Pompey are always there. That's it. Their pendulum swings, certainly, but between much narrower extremes than anyone else's, so a good season is eighth or ninth, a bad one hovering on the fringes of relegation without ever really looking odds-on to go down. Hence for the last fourteen seasons - and for eighteen of the last nineteen - Pompey have resided in the second tier of English football.

And yet...much as history dictates that Sunday's game will be unremarkable in every respect (talk this one up, ITV), last weekend's excruciatingly spineless showing at Gillingham leaves me regarding the Pompey fixture with something approaching dread. A week or two ago, on the back of one of the inspiring home performances, I'd have been looking forward to it. But a week or two ago the fact that the current Watford side is capable of some of the best football we've ever played would have been at the front of the mind. Rather than the fact that this is also the only Watford side that I remember that has also been capable of looking so completely and infuriatingly indifferent to proceedings.

Pompey, meanwhile, are on a bit of a high themselves, a victory over the increasingly comical Manchester City securing our visitors in a relatively heady tenth place. A biproduct of the ever increasing size and span of Premiership squads is that the number of high quality youngsters unable to break through has increased. Several teams have cast out nets with a view to catching some of the better rejects with varying degrees of success (Preston and Wigan are two sides at either extreme). Pompey appear to be benefitting from the connections and experience of their thoroughly likeable Director of Football Harry Redknapp and the slightly less-so Team Manager Graham Rix, with a number of youngsters heading to the south coast from London.

In goal for Pompey will be new cult hero Yoshikitsu Kawaguchi, one of two in the team likely to be captaining his national side at next summer's World Cup. Following the tragic death of Aaron Flahavan and the latest unexpected twist in the never-ending career of Dave Beasant, Kawaguchi's cover is Channel Islander Chris Tardif, in whom Pompey's support does not appear to be terribly confident.

In common with his former boss at Chelsea, Graham Rix has opted for a 3-5-2 formation which could result in no little midfield congestion on Sunday evening. The three at the back on Saturday were Scott Hiley, Alessandro Zamperini and Jason Crowe, a popular trio despite a collaborative lack of inches. Hiley was last season's player-of-the-year despite an uncertain start to the season; Zamperini is a nineteen-year-old Italian who Redknapp had on trial at Upton Park, and Crowe is a former Arsenal trainee who can also play at full-back. Other possibilities in the back three include Linvoy Primus, returning from a hamstring problem, Carl Tiler, impressing in the reserves following a toe injury, and Dave Waterman, although the latter is also employed as a man-marking midfielder.

The wing-back roles have been taken by two players closer to conventional wingers than full-backs, Kevin Harper and Courtney Pitt. Harper has had a particularly impressive run of late, finally overcoming injury problems to fulfill some of the promise he showed at Hibs; Pitt is one of Rix's recruits from Chelsea, and whilst he has the pace to be an attacking threat, his defensive failings may be exposed in his current role. Jamie Vincent, ex- of Huddersfield, could also fill this role whilst Crowe could cover for Harper as a more defensive option on the right. Justin Edinburgh, however, is out with an achilles injury.

In midfield, the lackadaisical brilliance of Prosinecki is fed by the industry of another Chelsea cast-off Neil Barrett, but England U19 youngster Gary O'Neil doesn't look like spending too long being talked of as a mere "prospect"; his performance attracted much praise on Saturday. Midfield alternatives include Nigel Quashie, returning from injury and a scorer in both our meetings last season, the industrious Garry Brady and one-time Watford triallist Michael Panopoulos. Shaun Derry is out with a hamstring problem, whilst Ceri Hughes, Tom Curtis and Mladen Rudonja, who scored a crucial goal in Slovenia's World Cup play-off last week, are all out of favour.

Up front, an uncontainable if ungainly threat is proffered by another one-time Watford target Peter Crouch, also a Premiership cast-off who has scored twelve already this season. He is partnered by the less complicated attributes of Lee Bradbury. Lee Mills has been on the bench, but is persistently linked with moves away, Barnsley the latest to show an interest. An injury picked up in a reserve game on Tuesday may delay any move. With Mark Burchill out long-term with a cruciate ligament injury and Rory Allen also missing with an ankle problem, youngsters Steve Lovell and Luke Nightingale have a chance to stake a claim. The latter in particular has made precious little impact since a startling debut three years ago, and could be on his way out of Fratton Park.

There are many players who have been released by top clubs and gone on to be stars...David Platt and Peter Beardsley were ejected by Manchester United, Kevin Phillips by Southampton, Roger Wills by Notts County. It's also worth bearing in mind that if there's a club in the Premiership up-its-own-arse enough to dump good kids in favour of more glamorous names, it's surely Chelsea. But it would be a brave man that put money on Pompey either challenging the upper reaches of the league or seriously struggling.

As for Sunday, part of the problem with these incomprehensible kick-off times is the lack of twenty-four perspective-gaining hours before the onslaught of the following week. Football plays a defining role in the answer to "how was your weekend?" anyway. When the stimulus is still fresh from Sunday evening, it can be more significant still.

As the poor souls who went to the Priestfield will surely appreciate. An improvement on last week's episode would be most welcome.